Overdue end to the old world order
The Arab uprisings shocked us all – but perhaps the even bigger surprise is that these empty regimes have taken so long to crumble.
The political earthquake now bringing down shaky and rotting regimes across the Arab world has already done more than to remove some long-entrenched dictators such as Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia or even Gaddafi in Libya. More significantly it has removed one of the last remaining props from the old world order. In so doing, it has torn aside the veil that hid the weakness of both ‘strongman’ regimes in the region and of the Western powers – while revealing at the same time the gap where a radical political opposition ought to be.
UK prime minister David Cameron’s trip to the Middle East this week confirmed how far things have changed in the region. First, Cameron flew unannounced into Egypt, a former colony where British governments once organised coups and invasions, looking less like a powerful world statesman than a third-rate celebrity in search of a photo opportunity, an irrelevance to the historic events unfolding around him.
Then Cameron went on to Kuwait for what was supposed to be a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the victory of the US-led alliance over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War. In the event, it served more as an inadvertent advert for just how badly the Western alliance has lost its grip on events over the past two decades. Didn’t President George HW Bush declare that the 1990-91 war would found his ‘new world order’ of global peace and prosperity under American leadership? Twenty years on, some of the last vestiges of the old world order appear to be falling apart in the Middle East, and few seem prepared to take their orders from the West.
That first Gulf War was, lest we forget, an attempt to assert US and Western authority in the Middle East and the wider world, in the wake of the instability unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War. Thus did the poetical President Bush declare to Congress in September 1990 that US forces in the Gulf were standing ‘together with Arabs, Europeans, Asians and Africans in defence of principle and the dream of a New World Order. That is why they sweat and toil in the sand and the heat and the sun.’
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait provided a convenient pretext for this show of international force. Saddam was an old ally of the Western leaders – they had turned a blind eye to his gassing of the Kurds and much else – who by 1990 had outlived his usefulness. Shortly before he occupied Kuwait, the US ambassador assured Saddam that Washington had ‘no interest’ in his border dispute with Iraq’s southern neighbour. Once he acted upon that advice and invaded, however, the international powers moved to ‘draw a line in the sand’ and unite the world against him under US leadership. It was a key moment in the attempted moral rearmament of imperialism.
The Alliance’s speedy victory over Saddam’s ragtag forces led to some predictable triumphalism in the West in 1991. At the time I was editor of Living Marxism magazine, and we ran a dissenting front-cover headlined ‘How the West has Lost’.
Our point was that the military victory would be facile – though bloody for the Iraqis – but in the longer term such an intervention was sowing the seeds of wider bitterness towards the West and its local allies. As the political old-timers used to say, having sowed the wind, they would reap the whirlwind.
Twenty years on, that process is finally bearing fruition. The key Arab player in Bush senior’s coalition for a new world order was President Mubarak of Egypt, recently and non-sadly departed from power, followed by the Bahraini monarch, now in the democracy protestors’ sights. Other local coalition members from 1990-91, from the Saudi royals to the ‘radical’ Syrian President Assad, are now looking nervously at the uprisings across the Arab world.
The illusion of strength and permanence created around these essentially decrepit regimes means that the successful Arab uprisings came as a shock to all of us – and to them. Yet perhaps the bigger surprise should be that it took so long. The kings and tyrants of the Arab world have survived for years with only guns and oil to sustain them, lacking any real political authority or roots in their societies. Other props of the stable post-Second World War order, notably the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe, have long since collapsed. Now the Arab world is finally being dragged into the twenty-first century’s era of uncertainty.
And there seems little that the old imperialist powers such as the USA, Britain and France, who designed and long controlled the modern Middle East, can do to halt it. If the Gulf War of 1990-91 could not reassert Western authority in the long term, the attempt to repeat the trick in the second Gulf War of 2003 turned into a tragic farce.
The second President Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair failed to cohere anything like the same international coalition, and the disastrous fallout from the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam exposed the new limits of US power. Now, as the peoples of the Arab world turn against dictatorial governments which the West has either propped up (Mubarak) or co-opted (Gaddafi), Washington and Whitehall appear frozen in the headlights of history, unable to string a coherent sentence together, never mind organise a coup or even an effective diplomatic response.
Against this background, why has it taken so long for the Arab regimes to stumble and fall? One important factor has been another change in the old political order: the defeat of the international left. Too closely attached to the Stalinism of the Soviet Union and offering no progressive alternative, the postwar left became so impotent and discredited that even the likes of Gaddafi were able to claim the name of socialism. In the developing world the failure of the left allowed the Islamists to creep in and seize the initiative, notably in Iran (often with the initial encouragement of the anti-communists in the corridors of Western power). In the developed world the collapse of the radical tradition as an independent force means that many on the rump of the left have become loud advocates of Western intervention, looking to imperialism to liberate the masses – with disastrous consequences.
The defeat of the internationalist left has helped the Arab regimes to retain their flimsy hold on power for so long. Now that these regimes are crumbling from within, it also helps to explain why there is little or no organised political opposition to force the old elites out entirely or take their place. There is much worried discussion in the West about the ‘political vacuum’ that would follow the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, where all opposition parties and ‘civil society’ have been banned and suppressed. Yet the situation is really much the same in societies such as Egypt, where the organised opposition is largely either ‘celebrity’ exiles feted by the international media, or instant groups thrown up with little political programme beyond ‘down with the dictators’. This absence of political leadership all adds to the uncertainty and raises the danger of the uprisings being derailed.
There has been a tendency in the West towards both a rhetorical exaggeration and a real underestimation of what has happened in the Arab world so far. The rhetorical exaggeration is clear in the premature use of the word ‘revolution’ by observers of every stripe. A revolution should mean more than getting rid of an unpopular leader. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia nor Libya has yet undergone the overturn of the social and political order that such a term suggests. In Egypt, the practical result of the popular uprising – so far – is a military takeover. It is worth noting that there is often a conservative impulse behind this promiscuous Western use of the ‘r’ word, a way of telling the democracy-hungry Arab masses ‘right, that’s your revolution already – don’t go any further!’ No doubt many experts from the US and the EU are already preparing to step in and teach the Arabs the ‘right’ way to set up respectable opposition parties and moderate their demands.
But there is also a common underestimation of what has really been taking place. The focus on the personal fate of a Mubarak or a Gaddafi tends to miss the powerful undercurrents of change that are shaking the Arab world and will have wider repercussions across the unravelling world order. There are no longer any certainties, and nothing that is on the political table today is in any way permanent. The one thing for sure is that the future is up for grabs.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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